Innovating in Transport Data in a time of COVID-19

6 Jul 2020 by Emer Coleman

TransportAPI has worked closely with First Group for a number of years as its Managed Service provider of choice for transport data. We are continuously iterating our software and had rolled out our new Buses on a Map functionality before the onset of COVID-19. This feature was widely welcomed by First Group App users. And then, just like that, the world changed.

Public Transport usage declined steeply as evidenced by our data monitoring

According to data from the Department for Transport (DfT), when COVID-19 hit the UK, national rail usage was the most affected, with passenger journey numbers down by approximately 95% in April and through 13 May, similar to the level of decline on the London Underground. This compared with a reduction of approximately 90% in buses outside of London, and 85% in London buses. With our industry bird’s-eye view, we saw requests to transport apps plummet to about 10% of what they were, from pre-covid to lock down. Since then, there has been a 3 times increase in usage, signalling a gradual return to life for the sector.

Bus stop RTI predictions, with occupancy data. Streamed bus on a map locations and status, including occupancy data

Clearly the imperative was going to be for First Group to manage their bus services in a way that could respond to the crisis, keeping key workers safe who still needed to use public transport. Driver safety, was of course also paramount. So TransportAPI needed to get a social distancing solution out the door rapidly, and had the occupancy feature in production within 4 weeks. On the 2nd of June, First Group launched the new feature, to enable commuters to track not only the location of their next bus but also available capacity. This allowed commuters to calculate social distancing on board their fleet. First Bus was the first major bus operator to roll out live capacity tracking, reducing uncertainty for customers and allowing them to make informed decisions about their essential journeys.

Scottish Parliament Chamber

As well as general capacity, the App also provides specific information on the availability of wheel chair access. This functionality has been recognised by the Scottish Parliament where a motion congratulating First Bus on its innovative approach went before parliament on July 1st. The motion notes that First Bus is the first bus operator in the UK to allow customers to live track the location of their next bus, and applauds the operator for the measures they have put in place for the safety of all passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First Bus themselves, were delighted with the speed of implementation according to Giles Fearnley, Managing Director of First Bus: “We are really proud to have been able to fast-track this technology to ensure safe, informed travel during these difficult times. Our buses provide an essential service for our customers and we are doing all we can to support them.” App users are showing their love for the new features, averaging 4.6 reviews in the App store.

Currently, the feature is supported by bus drivers manually using clickers to count as passengers embark and dismount. This data point is then pushed via TransportAPI straight to passenger phones within 20 seconds which is amongst the faster data distribution in the industry. Of course, the product will continue to iterate and the next phase will use AI capability to assess capacity. Watch this space.